As town officials and residents alike prepare for possible landfall of a major hurricane this week, Wrightsville Beach officials will issue a mandatory evacuation of the town effective on Wednesday at 8 p.m.
With Hurricane Florence reaching Category 4 strength on Monday, Wrightsville Beach Town manager Tim Owens said that officials would be “strongly urging everyone to leave by 8 p.m.”
Owens stressed the danger Hurricane Florence posed to Wrightsville Beach and said the island could be without power and water for days or potentially weeks following the storm. Once winds reach 50 mph, there will be no response from police or emergency personnel.
“I’ve worked up and down the coast and this is the most serious storm I’ve ever seen,” Owens said. “People need to be off the island. They need to have an emergency plan in place. They need to have all their medication and supplies.”
The Tuesday 7 a.m. briefing from the National Weather Service had the projected path of Hurricane Florence reaching the Cape Fear area by Thursday at 8 a.m. The storm was producing winds of 140 mph and was located 975 miles southeast of Cape Fear, moving west northwest at 15 mph. Rainfall forecasts for the area ranged from 8 to 10 inches, while the storm surge on the Cape Fear River could range from 6 to 12 feet.
If the storm stays on its projected track towards the Cape Fear area, town officials will move vehicles and equipment off of the island, Owens said, adding that once wind speeds exceed 50 mph, there will be no police or medical responders on the island. At some point, the town’s water and electric system will be shut down, he said. The Trask drawbridge will not be raised, but it will be barricaded to prevent people from coming back onto the island. Furthermore, while police will not likely arrest anyone who stays on the island, residents who remain could be subject to fines, Owens said.
On Wednesday, police and fire officials will go door-to-door to urge compliance with the mandatory evacuation, Wrightsville Beach Fire Chief Glen Rogers said.
“If it’s a Category 4 or 5 storm, you need to be serious about evacuation,” Rogers said, noting that Hurricane Florence hasn’t fully developed and could still strengthen. “If people decide to stay, there are going to be times that 911 will not be able to reach them. It’s not joke. It’s no hurricane party. A Category 5 storm is deadly.”
If anyone says they are staying, Rogers said officials will strongly urge them to leave. If that fails, Rogers said they will offer some chilling advice.
“Anyone who is staying needs to let people know that they’re making the conscious decision to stay,” Rogers said. “We’ll try to get the name of their next of kin in case they don’t make it. We’ll also encourage them to write their name and their next of kin on a body part. We are the people that do the body recoveries and it’s not a pretty sight after being in the salt water for days. We don’t want anybody to be like this.”
Expect several days before the island opens
If Wrightsville Beach sees hurricane force winds, it could be days or weeks before people are allowed back on the island, Owens said. Officials won’t let people back on the island until contractors have made sure it is safe and that all power lines have been secured.
Owens said that residents will have to expect some delay in the evaluation and response following the storm. The town has an agreement with storm-damage contractors who are based in Georgia. Those contractors, who are on-call for the storm event, will have to travel up after the storm, potentially encountering delays on the interstate and state roads before even reaching Wrightsville Beach. After that, it will take several more days for the contractors to evaluate the area.
The contractors are specialists in storm damage recovery, with equipment and expertise that goes beyond that of a general contractor, Owens said.
“Most contractors can’t handle storm damage of this magnitude,” Owens said. “They are the professionals, with the resources that can come in at some point and clear everything out.”
Owens estimated that if the storm hits as forecast, Wednesday would be the earliest that people are allowed to return to the island, though he said it could be much longer if the damage is severe.
Even if people are allowed back on the island to check their property, it’s unlikely power will be restored for at least a “couple weeks,” Owens said.
“It will be a minimum of a couple of weeks,” he said.
Additionally, the town’s water system will be shut off at about 6 p.m. on Wednesday, he said.
Key town staff and officials, including members of the board of aldermen, will be stationed in a nearby hotel off of the island. Following the storm, the First Citizens Bank at 1910 Eastwood Rd. will serve as the town’s emergency operation center.
One of the first priorities will be to use a drone to get video and pictures of the storm damage. Town officials will be available at the New Hanover County Library Northeast Branch at 1241 Military Cutoff Rd., where drone footage and other important information will be available.